Standing on the middle of the Saskatchewan prairie it is almost as though you can feel the history of the place. You can close your eyes and visualize a young bride full of nervous excitement. Or sense the energy of children rushing by, eager for a Sunday visit, or hear the joyful chatter of the annual church bazaar reverberating from the basement.
The few cracks in the church’s foundation aren’t wrinkles from strain. Rather, they are the laugh-lines from the memories shared by gathering pilgrims. All of this is combined with a sense of sorrow lingering from the century of mourners who have buried loved ones here.
The church is Saints Peter and Paul, and the place is the Blumenfeld Heritage Site in the southwest corner of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. It is located 16 km south and six km east of Leader, just off Highway 21.
The church’s records go back more than 100 years. They are amongst the first official records to document the early settlers in the area and tell the story of what was once a thriving rural parish.
On Sunday, June 28, 2015, a centennial celebration will be held to mark the 100th anniversary of the church at Blumenfeld.
Everyone is welcome to attend the June 28 pilgrimage: mass will be celebrated at 3:30 p.m. with Bishop Donald Bolen as presider and homilist.
Registration, children’s activities and “grebble” (a local delicacy of fried dough, similar to elephant ears) begin at 10 a.m. Other pilgrimage activities, including the blessing of the cemetery and praying of the outdoor stations of the cross, as well as the sacrament of reconciliation, start at 1 p.m. Those who plan to attend the evening meal are asked to purchase tickets before a May 15 deadline (call Kendra Volk at 306-666-2017).
“One hundred years ago, pioneers built Saints Peter and Paul Church as a symbol of faith that stood strong against the harshness of the rugged prairie environment,” said Deacon Bob Williston, a member of the Blumenfeld Heritage Committee.
The church is the main beacon of the heritage site. The belfry, spire and cross that rise above the prairie can be seen for miles remaining as a reminder of faith-filled life in early Saskatchewan.
“Through the years many pilgrims have journeyed to this holy ground to gain insight and inspiration. This year we invite you to experience the strength, wonder, and devotion of those who, with very little, were encouraged for greatness,” added Williston.
Known for his gifts of singing and songwriting, Deacon Bob Williston has composed a song for the 100th anniversary entitled Blumenfeld is Softly Callin.’ CDs featuring the song are available for sale, as are DVDs and a history book.
A history of Blumenfeld written in May 1955 recounts that, “in speaking to some of the oldtimers, they refer to the year 1908, when the first Catholic settlers arrived in the district of Blumenfeld.” The early German settlers came from Romania, Krasna and Bessarabia. Some of the original family names in the area were Hoffart, Guckert, Duchscherer, Drescher, Ziebert, Riffel and Weisgerber.
From the early years of the parish until 1955, 1,740 baptisms were registered, as well as 254 marriages and 295 deaths.
“The church of Saints Peter and Paul, and parish of Blumenfeld, is the mother church of the district . . . similarly to a mother, who sees her children depart to make their own homes, so too, the mother church of Blumenfeld has witnessed the beginnings and the flourishing of new parishes all around her, which at one time belonged to her care,” wrote the author of the 1955 historic account.
In 1964 the Blumenfeld parish celebrated its last regular mass. In 1983 the site was designated as a heritage site.
Each year, the parish yard is brought back to life for the afternoon of the annual pilgrimage, a tradition that began during the 1930s.
Those were tough years for the locals, so much so that Rev. Henry Kelz, OMI, stayed with the Karl Duchscherer family. This was “because of lack of funds to supply fuel and other needs to the upkeep of the parish rectory,” according to the 1955 historic account.
Nevertheless, the parishioners worked to build a place of pilgrimage. In 1936, the grotto for outdoor worship was constructed — primarily of rocks gathered and hauled from neighbouring lands — and was blessed for the first pilgrimage.
“We recall the era when our people settled the land. Land carries special meaning for people of an agricultural background. For the last 100 years — and prior for our native peoples — the land has proven to be a resource of abundance, bounty, limitation and scarce returns at various times,” said Daryl Tumbach of the Blumenfeld Heritage Committee.
In the early years, there used to be up to 2,000 pilgrims walking prayerfully, and for considerable distances, from all four directions toward the Blumenfeld site.
Today, a volunteer committee continues to work at maintaining the site. A few years ago the windows on the north side of the building were replaced for $23,000. The original church, complete with a basement, cost just over $10,500 to build. The rectory cost a meagre $1,200.
Operations and upkeep today depend on donations. Current needs include a new roof, chimney, the remaining windows and a wheelchair lift. Sponsorship and donations are greatly appreciated. In addition to the annual pilgrimage, volunteers provide tours of the church on Sundays in July and August from 2 to 4 p.m. Group tours can also be requested at other times (call 306-673-2622).